05/20/2013 02:55 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2013

A New Contemporary Art Museum in Poland

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When we think of Poland, our associations are not altogether positive. Sure, there was the recent Polish Pope (John Paul II) who traveled a lot and gave the Catholic Church a more human face. There was Lech Walesa, who bravely led the Solidarity shipworkers union during the final years of the Communist rule, later become the nation's president. Poland, since the fall of the Soviet Union, has become one of the few "transitional economies" of Eastern Europe to become more prosperous, joining the European Union and wisely keeping its distance from the Eurozone until that currency gets straightened out.

Still, the images from the Second World War predominate: The slaughtering of Jews during the Warsaw uprising, the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and some others, the nation where the war began and remained the longest. The Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List, which told a much sanitized life of the Cracow factory owner Oskar Schindler, who helped spare the lives of 1,100 otherwise doomed Jews, only reminds us of the horror that was wartime Poland.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Cracow (4 Lipova, has been attempting to provide the world with some newer, alternative images -- the work of active and internationally-attuned Polish artists. The museum, which is just two years old, recently opened a new exhibition, "Economics in Art," continuing through September 29, that looks at how artists around the world have responded to the ever-feverish art market and to capitalism in general. I was invited by the museum and the City of Cracow to visit.

The topic is larger than any one exhibit can encompass and, in fact, it might be better and more comprehensively tackled by a symposium with speakers rather than through art objects. Certainly, artists over the past two centuries have criticized "blood-sucking" art dealers and the presumably philistine bourgeoisie, but these sneers have always seemed half-hearted. Most artists come from middle-class backgrounds and have relied on this same group of people to purchase their work in order to continue their careers.

There are some amusing, occasionally eye-opening, artworks in this exhibit, such as Banksy's 2004 reconfigured 10-pound note ("Di-Faced Tenner") that replaces the Queen's visage with that of Princess Diana and makes the bill redeemable at the "Banksy of England." Joseph Beuys' 1980 silkscreen of a blackboard on which the words Art=Capital ("Kunst=Kapital") are written as though by a school teacher and Jota Castro's 2009 hangman's noose ("Mortgage") that is composed of entwined dollar bills. They make the only point in the big discussion of economics in art that artists actually can make -- money is big and artists are small. (Even when, in the case of a Banksy or a Beuys, the artists are pretty big, too).

This exhibit follows in the footsteps of the museum's first major international shows, "History in Art" in 2011 and "Sports in Art" in 2012," which looked at works that a diverse group of artists created on these themes.

Clearly, it is not easy to get too far removed from the memory of World War II and its aftermath. The museum itself was fashioned from one of the two buildings that were Oskar Schindler's factory -- the other is now the Historical Museum of Cracow, which displays photographs and some miscellaneous objects of the Nazi wartime occupation of Poland, as well as the contents of Schindler's office. Many visitors to Cracow, particularly Jewish tourists, come to see the Historical Museum (they also visit the city's historic Jewish district and the out-of-town Auschwitz-Birkenau) but leave with their theme-specific tour groups without entering the next door contemporary art museum. It is hard to blame these visitors, for whom a leap from wartime remembrance to artistic liberty is far greater than the physical distance of these two buildings, but it makes getting this contemporary art museum the visibility it deserves all the more difficult.

Perhaps, it would have been easier had the contemporary art museum been sited elsewhere. The choice probably was not possible, as these two buildings were vacant -- the owner after Schindler had gone bankrupt, and the city took them over -- and could be repurposed for far less money than erecting an entirely new museum. As it were, the cost of turning a former factory into a contemporary art museum cost $250 million, half of which was paid by the European Union, another large chunk came from the City of Cracow, with the remainder coming from private donations.

The museum's permanent collection of more than 2,000 objects was donated by Maria Anna Potocka, a former Cracow art dealer and collector and first director of the institution. She led the curatorial team that put together the "History in Art," "Sports in Art" and now the "Economics in Art" exhibits.